Penn, Oldham awarded Hall-Waters Prize

Published 10:54 pm Friday, April 12, 2019

Troy University honored two Alabama songwriters on Friday with the Hall-Waters Prize for Excellence in Southern Writing.

The duo of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, writers of such songs as “Cry Like a Baby” by Box Tops and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” by Aretha Franklin, are the first songwriters to be honored with the Hall-Waters prize, which they accepted during a ceremony on Friday at the Troy Campus.

“It’s a surprise and unexpected, but it’s always good to be included in someone’s memory in a good way,” Oldham said. “I can see the relation, because songs are another way to share experiences and tell stories.”

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Penn said the award was a great honor.

“This kind of fell out of sky,” Penn said. “We didn’t know we were writers, other than little tunes. Now we are getting a book award. Maybe I’ll go write a book.”

Presented annually by Troy’s Department of English, the Hall-Waters Prize honors people who have made significant contributions to Southern heritage and culture in history, literature or the arts. Although many of its past recipients have been authors, Dr. Kirk Curnutt, chair of the Department of English, said it was a logical choice to honor celebrated songwriters Penn and Oldham.

“People, I think, sort of wrongly assumed that this award is a book award, but in our English department we have a very simple saying, ‘writing is writing,’” Curnutt said. “There are not a lot of differences between writing a novel and writing a song. There’s the voice, there’s the form and the dynamics. So to be able to have the talent to produce is varied and important to us culturally here in the South.”

Penn was still a teenager when a demo recorded with his band, Benny Cagle and the Rhythm Swingsters, called “Is a Bluebird Blue?” caught the ear of Conway Twitty, who made it a hit in 1959. At 20, he became the first in-house songwriter at FAME Studios (short for Florence Alabama Musical Enterprises) in the Shoals, working closely with founder Rick Hall.

As the resident keyboardist for FAME Studios, Oldham remains one of rock’s most highly sought sidemen, earning him inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Musicians Hall of Fame and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Oldham performed on such classics as Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” and Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” while his proto-funk electric piano drives Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).”

Before accepting the award, Penn and Oldham shared stories and discussed the craft of songwriting with students in the John M. Long School of Music.

Among the stories told was the origin of the Box Tops hit “Cry like a Baby.”

“We were in the studio two days and two nights trying to write this song and we kept tearing up paper and throwing it in the can,” Penn said. “Eventually I looked at Spooner and said ‘I guess it’s time to go home.’ So we went across the street to a cafe at 4 a.m. and we’re sitting there in the booth, two big songwriters, and we can’t think of anything. So we’re looking at each other dejected and Spooner put his head on the table and said ‘I could cry like a baby.’ I knew immediately that was it. I didn’t know what it would look like, but I knew we had it. We had the tune by the time we got back across the street to the studio.”

The Hall-Waters Prize was endowed by Troy alumnus Dr. Wade Hall, an author, former member of the faculty at the University of Florida and professor emeritus of English at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY. Past winners include Rep. John Lewis, Bobbie Ann Mason, Pat Conroy, Natasha Trethewey, Cassandra King, and Ace Atkins, among others.